Introduction to Creative Nonfiction
Creative nonfiction has existed for as long as poetry, fiction, and drama have, but only in the last forty years or so has the term become common as a label for creative, factual prose. The length is not a factor in characterizing this genre: Such prose can take the form of an essay or a book. For this chapter’s discussion, we will focus on the essay, since not only will this shorter version of the form allow us to examine multiple examples for a better understanding of the genre, but also, you may have written creative nonfiction essays yourself. Looking carefully at the strategies exhibited by some successful essay writers will give us new ideas for achieving goals in our own writing.
Currently, creative non-fiction is the most popular literary genre. While generations past defined literature as poetry, drama, and fiction, creative nonfiction has increasingly gained popularity and recognition in the literary world.
Creative nonfiction stories depict real-life events, places, people, and experiences, but do so in a way that is immersive, so readers feel emotionally invested in the writing in a way they probably are not as invested in, say, a textbook or a more formal autobiography. While “nonfiction” (without the creative designation) tells true stories as well, there is less emphasis upon and space for creativity. If regular nonfiction were a person, it might say “just the facts, ma’am.” Creative nonfiction, on the other hand, might ask “and what color were her eyes as the moonlight reflected off the ocean into them, and what childhood memories did that moment dredge up?”
The best creative nonfiction tells a true story in an artistic — or literary — way. This means that the story has certain elements, such as descriptive imagery, setting, plot, conflict, characters, metaphors, and other literary devices. Usually, a work of creative nonfiction is narrated in first-person, though sometimes it can be written in third-person. It can be lyric and personal or representing important moments in history. They also might be more objective and scholarly, like many pieces of investigative journalism.
Creative Nonfiction Characteristics
- True stories
- Prose (usually, though sometimes poetry)
- Uses literary devices/is more creative and artistically-oriented than “regular” nonfiction
- Often told in first person
- The narrator is often the author or a persona of the author, but not always
When reading a work of creative nonfiction, it is important to remember the story is true. This means the author does not have as much artistic freedom as a fiction writer or poet might, because they cannot invent events which did not happen. It is worthwhile, then, to pay attention to the literary devices and other artistic choices the narrator makes. Readers should consider: what choices were made here about what to include and what to omit? Are there repeating images or themes? How might the historical context influence this work?
First, let’s do what we can to more clearly define the creative nonfiction essay. What is the difference between this kind of essay and an academic essay? Although written in prose form (prose is writing not visually broken into distinct lines as poetry is), the creative nonfiction essay often strives for a poetic effect, employing a kind of compressed, distilled language so that most words carry more meaning than their simple denotation (or literal meaning). Generally, this kind of essay is not heavy with researched information or formal argument; its priority, instead, is to generate a powerful emotional and aesthetic effect (aesthetic referring to artistic and/or beautiful qualities).
In this video, Evan Puschak discusses the evolution of the essay with the advent of technology and gives some really interesting insight into the importance of essays.
Four Types of Essay
A narrative essay recounts a sequence of related events. Narrative essays are usually autobiographical. Events are chosen because they suggest or illustrate some universal truth or insight about life. In other words, the author has discovered in his/her own experiences evidence for generalizations about themselves or society.
An argumentative essay strives to persuade readers. It usually deals with controversial ideas, creating arguments and gathering evidence to support a particular point of view. The author anticipates and answers opposing arguments in order to persuade the reader to adopt the author’s perspective.
In this video, the instructor gives an overview of the narrative and argumentative essays from the writer’s perspective. Looking at the essay from the author’s perspective can provide an interesting insight into reading an essay.
A descriptive essay depicts sensory observations in words. They evoke reader’s imagination and address complex issues by appealing to the senses instead of the intellect. While a narrative essay will certainly employ description, the primary difference between the two is that a descriptive essay focuses only on appealing to the senses, whereas a narrative essay uses description to tell a story.
An expository essay attempt to explain a topic, making it clear to readers. In an expository essay, the author organizes and provides information. Examples of this type of essay include the definition essay and the process analysis (how-to).
In this videos, the instructor gives an overview of the descriptive and expository essays from the writer’s perspective. Looking at the essay from the author’s perspective can provide an interesting insight into reading an essay.
Choosing a Topic & Reading the Essay: Steps 1 & 2
Your first step in writing a paper about an essay is to choose an essay and read it carefully. Essays confront readers directly with an idea, a problem, an illuminating experience, an important definition, or some flaw/virtue in the social system. Usually short, an essay embodies the writer’s personal viewpoint and speaks with the voice of a real person about the real word. Essays might also explore & clarify ideas by arguing for or against a position.
When reading an essay, ask yourself, “what is the central argument or idea?” Does the essay attack or justify something, or remind readers of something about their inner lives?
In this video, I do a close reading of the essay “The Grapes of Mrs. Wrath .” As in any type of literature, you want to read first for enjoyment and understanding. Then, go back and do a close reading with a pen in hand, jotting down notes and looking for the ways in which the author gets his/her point across to the reader.
Virginia Woolf’s 1942 “The Death of the Moth” is an illuminating example of an argumentative essay. While the essay does not present a stated argument and proceed to offer evidence in the same way conventional academic argument would, it does strive to persuade. Consider this piece carefully and see if you can detect the theme that Woolf is developing.
Here are some important items to consider when reading an essay.
1. The Thesis:
What is the point of the piece of writing? This should be your central concern. Once you know what the author’s main idea is, you can look at what techniques the author uses to get that point across successfully.
The title of Woolf’s essay, “The Death of the Moth,” offers us, from the start, the knowledge of the work’s theme of death. What impression does the essay, as a whole, convey? The writer acknowledges that watching even such a small creature as the moth struggle against death, she sympathizes with the moth and not with the “power of such magnitude” that carries on outside the window—that of time and inevitable change, for this power is ultimately her own “enemy” as well. In her last line, “O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am,” what lesson has she internalized regarding herself, a human being who at first observed the autumn day with no immediate sense of her own mortality?
2. Structure & detail:
- opening lines capture attention
- endings offer forceful assertions that focus the matter preceding them
- body converts abstract ideas into concrete details
While this piece is not a poem, what aspects of it are poetic? Consider the imagery employed to suggest the season of death, for all of nature. The writer describes her experience sitting at her desk next to the window, observing the signs of autumn: the plow “scoring the field” where the crop (or “share”) has already been harvested. Although the scene begins in morning—characterized by energetic exertions of nature, including the rooks, rising and settling into the trees again and again with a great deal of noise, “as though to be thrown into the air and settle slowly down upon the tree tops were a tremendously exciting experience”—the day shifts, as the essay progresses, to afternoon, the birds having left the trees of this field for some other place. Like the moth, the day and the year are waning. The energy that each began with is now diminishing, as is the case for all living things.
The writer is impressed with the moth’s valiant struggle against its impending death because she is also aware of its inevitable doom: “[T] here was something marvellous as well as pathetic about him.” As is common in poetry, Woolf’s diction not only suggests her attitude toward the subject, but also exhibits a lyrical quality that enhances the work’s effect: She introduces words whose meanings are associated with youth and energy, as well as sounding strong with the “vigorous” consonants of “g,” “c,” “z,” and “t”—words such as “vigour,” “clamour,” and “zest.” Yet, the author counters this positive tone with other words that suggest, both in meaning and in their softer sounds, the vulnerability of living things: “thin,” “frail,” “diminutive,” and “futile.” In a third category of diction, with words of compliment—”extraordinary” and “uncomplainingly”—
Woolf acknowledges the moth’s admirable fight. In addition to indicating the moth’s heroism, the very length of these words seems to model the moth’s attempts to drag out its last moments of life.
3. Style and Tone
- Style: writing skills that contribute to the effect of any piece of literature
- Tone: attitude conveyed by the language a writer chooses
Woolf’s choice of tone for an essay on this topic is, perhaps, what distinguishes it from the many other literary works on the subject. The attitude is not one of tragedy, horror, or indignation, as we might expect. Rather, through imagery and diction, Woolf generates a tone of wistfulness. By carefully crafting the reader’s experience of the moth’s death, through the author’s own first person point of view, she reminds us of our own human struggle against death, which is both heroic and inevitable.
For Further Reading
Believe it or not, people actually add essays to their reading lists! Here are a few folks talking about their favorite essay collections. 🙂